WAPAKONETA, Ohio (WDTN) – Jared Ebbing was in his fourth year in 2012, four years after the Great Recession began, as economic director for Mercer County when a local employer came to him with a problem that became an opportunity.
“One local company was frustrated,” Ebbing said. “They posted engineering positions in the local paper but were only getting one or two responses to each.
“These weren’t just good jobs, but good careers. I later started going to high schools and asking how many seniors wanted to stay in the area after they graduated. Eight-five percent raised their hands, but if you asked them if they thought they could land a dream job in the area, they put their hands down. They didn’t think they could stay because there were no jobs.
“It hit me these two groups were missing each other in the night.”
By the end of the year, Mercer, Auglaize, Shelby and Darke counties created a website to connect workers and employers in the area called Hometown Opportunities.
Ebbing said he knew the website would work within six months. The same employer who couldn’t get more than two applicants for engineering jobs, had 25 applicants for one job from the new multi-county website. The employer hired five.
Aging populations, changing small-town culture and nowhere to live
Of counties considered ‘older-aging” in the United States, the United States Department of Agriculture reported last year 85 percent of those were rural.
Part of the change is cultural. The top industry in the four-county area – and in Ohio – is agriculture. Mercer and Auglaize County’s family structure was much different during the peak days of the family farm, according to Ebbing.
“When I was growing up, most of my friends had five to eight brothers and sisters,” Ebbing said. “The area was predominantly German-Catholic farmers and that’s how farming communities worked, you had a lot of kids. Today families have two kids, three if you’re ambitious.”
Ebbing says that economic and societal change puts farming communities on a trend toward aging.
Auglaize County is fighting it by bringing jobs, through companies that stayed through the recession, and new industry.
“We’re trying to encourage capital investment and almost all the companies we have here are growing,” Greg Myers said, of the Wapakoneta Area Economic Development Council. “We’re hoping to reverse the aging trend by bringing people here.”
Wapakoneta won a $500 million investment from Pratt Industries, a corrugated boxing company whose clients include Amazon and the U.S. Postal Service. Celina beat out 70 other sites to attract Ferguson Industries several years ago, a large distribution center.
But the jobs haven’t meant new residents. Many employees are commuting from Miami County or other counties out of the area.
That leads to the biggest problem these areas are facing – housing.
Wapakoneta is building townhouses as part of future downtown planning. There’s a Winan’s Chocolate downtown, as well as several coffee houses, a woodfired oven restaurant and a Panera Bread-style deli.
Celina has discussed plans and is looking for input from developers, but the issue isn’t as simple as a new subdivision.
“College kids have a lot of debt and they can’t afford a new house,” Ebbing said. “And what they look for isn’t traditional. They want something cool, similar to where they lived in college, with plenty of 20 somethings. That’s the biggest pull we have left on the gameboard and that’s what we don’t have in rural area, where 50 fresh professional college grads live.”